50 Years Later, a Victim of Ireland’s ‘Laundries’ Fights for Answers

By Ed O’loughlin
New York Times
October 26, 2018

Elizabeth and Peter Coppin at their home in March, England. Mrs. Coppin, now 69, was placed at age 2 with the Sisters of Mercy in the Nazareth House industrial school in Tralee, Ireland
Photo by Olivia Harris

For 30 years, she struggled with secret memories of beatings and other abuses, as well as most of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: chronic anxiety, social isolation, compulsive behavior, depression, flashbacks, nightmares and suicidal thoughts.

Finally, 20 years ago, convinced the pain would never subside unless she acted, Elizabeth Coppin, now 69, walked into a police station in her native County Kerry, Ireland. She filed a complaint relating to the 12 years she had spent in an Irish “industrial school,” one of a now-defunct network of state-funded orphanages and reformatories run by religious orders on behalf of the state.

Her statement, which the on-duty police officer typed up and signed, was accompanied by two letters that Mrs. Coppin had written in support of her case.

“I need answers,” one of them pleads, adding: “The emotional scars I carry with me today are still very real. Please check out everything, please don’t be put off by the nuns. Check everything, dig deep, especially records.”

There is no sign, she said in a recent interview, that the Irish police ever investigated her complaint.

A year later, in 1999, she filed a civil action against the Sisters of Mercy, who ran the industrial school, and two other orders — the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd — who ran two of Ireland’s notorious “Magdalene laundries” where marginalized, unwanted, or “fallen” women and girls lived and worked with little or no pay.

Her suit claimed that she had been physically and emotionally abused in the industrial school, then transferred to the laundries without due legal process, having committed no crime. There she had been held against her will and forced to work without pay in deprived conditions. But that case was dismissed by the High Court in Dublin on the grounds that too much time had passed.

Ignored by the police, rebuffed by the civil courts, Elizabeth Coppin had by 2001 exhausted her conventional criminal and civil remedies. She did not give up. Several years ago an advocacy group, Justice for Magdalenes Research, took up her cause, backed by teams of pro bono lawyers in Dublin and London.

Now, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has agreed to hear Mrs. Coppin’s accusations of systematic human rights violations in the industrial school and the Magdalene laundries, where she spent five years. This time, in what amounts to a test case for all survivors of the laundries, the main target of her complaint will not be the nuns but Ireland itself.

She is arguing that despite having paid roughly $30 million to 696 women who survived the laundries, including $63,000 to her, the Irish state has never admitted its role in supporting the laundries. Yet, according to an official report in 2013, thousands of inmates of industrial schools, including Mrs. Coppin, were sent to laundries direct from state care. Those who escaped were often returned by the police.

Nevertheless, the state refuses to admit any liability for their treatment, or to agree to calls for a full inquiry or truth commission. The religious orders who ran the laundries have neither contributed money for compensation nor admitted any human rights violations.

Born in May 1949 in Kerry’s “county home” — essentially, a workhouse — to an 18-year-old unmarried mother, Mrs. Coppin never knew her birth father. Her stepfather beat her so savagely that she was placed at age 2 with the Sisters of Mercy in the Nazareth House industrial school in Tralee.

There, she told the police in her initial complaint, the abuse continued. She said that one particularly sadistic nun, whom she named, would regularly strip her and beat her buttocks with a strap until she was welted and bruised. Sometimes the nun would grab her by the hair and swing her around the room. The nuns regularly starved her, locked her in cupboards and kept her out of school to do heavy housework. When the little girl wet herself she would be forced to wear her soiled clothes on her head.

At the age of 12 or 13 she tried to kill herself by setting fire to her clothes. Although being severely burned, she was denied medical treatment, and received “not even an aspirin,” she said. Her chief abuser would taunt her as she cried out in pain.

At the age of 14, she was moved from the school to a Magdalene laundry at Peacock Lane in the city of Cork, the first of three such laundries that she would be confined to.

In her new prison, she and the other girls were locked into separate cells every night with only a bucket for a toilet. Once, having been wrongly accused of stealing sweets from another girl, she spent three days in solitary confinement in the laundry’s “padded cell,” a bare room with no light, blanket or bed.

“It was in the padded cell that it dawned on me that I would be there for life, that I’d be buried in a mass grave; there were whispers that went around,” she recalls now. “I saw the people who were there, who were broken, institutionalized, illiterate, from living in a dark, dark place with no way out. I remember asking myself the questions, ‘What will I do? How will I get out?’”

At 17 she and another girl sneaked into an unbarred room at the front of the building and jumped from an upstairs window into the street. They remained at large for three months, working in a nearby hospital, until one day the “cruelty men,” inspectors of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, retrieved them.

Elizabeth was taken to a different laundry in Cork, and then another in Waterford city. When she was almost 19, a kindly nun in Waterford arranged a job for her as a hospital cleaner in her native Kerry.

She was free. Then one day, on her hands and knees scrubbing a floor, Elizabeth looked up to see her original tormentor, the nun from the industrial school, standing over her.

“She looked down at me and said, ‘Aren’t you sorry now for all the trouble you caused?’”

Badly shaken, she fled Ireland for London, where she met a young Englishman, Peter Coppin, at a dance in the Hammersmith Palais. They were married four years later. He was her only support as she dealt with the trauma of a miscarried first pregnancy, and then — after the births of her daughter and son — postnatal depression.

She worked a series of low-paying jobs while studying at night to make up for the education that had been denied her. In 2003, she finally qualified as an elementary teacher, her lifelong ambition. It was England, she said, and Peter, that gave her a life.

“When I met him it was the first time I ever felt loved,” she said. “I didn’t know that could happen to me.”

But she also suffered from chronic anxiety, and the crippling fear that she, too, might turn into an abuser of children. Her nights were troubled by a recurring nightmare that the nuns would take her back, or take her children. It was years before she could reveal her past to her husband.

“It was difficult, because at first she only gave out bits and pieces at a time,” Peter Coppin said. “Then she told me more and more, and now it can be hard for her to stop talking.”

Sometimes she trembles as she tells her story, sometimes she chokes back her tears, but she is determined to keep searching. “I will never come to terms with the past,” she said. “They violated my human rights, the basic principles of my life. What gave these men and the church the right to deny us our rights, because we were women?”

Her quest for answers was triggered, she said, 39 years ago, when, at the age of 30, she took her husband and their six-month-old daughter on a strange visit to see the nun who had abused her.

“I think that even though I was abused so badly there, that was my home. She was evil, but she was my mother,” she said. “I was looking for some kind of forgiveness, or approval, or affection. I don’t know. A lot of people go back to their abusers because they are the only people they know. I suppose I wanted to show off to her, to show her that I hadn’t come to nothing, like she’d said I would.”

But seeing the old nun again, the dark memories overwhelmed her.

“I couldn’t control myself. I had to go. When we were leaving I said, ‘I’m going to report you to the News of the World when I get back to England and tell them how evil you are.’ And she turned around to me and said, ‘They will never believe you.’”

Elizabeth Coppin has won that battle. Now, she is working to ensure that the that the abuses and terrors she and others suffered in the industrial schools and laundries will never be forgotten.



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